We got to sit down with Erin Nicolardi of Rivers to Ridges, to hear the inspiring story of how Erin and her business partner, Emily Payne, created a space for young people to learn on the land. They are doing important and humbling work and we are grateful to get to share a little bit about the incredible contributions they are making to the Yukon.

Tell me about Rivers to Ridges

Rivers to Ridges is a social enterprise focused on empowering a diverse range of northerners to develop meaningful connections to the land. Right now, we are focused on programs for children and youth (3 – 18-year olds), and we’re moving into many age ranges as we grow. All our work centers around supporting young people in connecting to the land with our core values as empathy, awareness and community.

We’ve also expanded the scope of our work to include developing curriculum and educator training opportunities for people who work with young people. So, we’re continuing to grow as we uncover the needs of the communities we are serving.

Can you tell me a bit about the work you do to support people who work with youth?

We design outdoor and land-based education for youth workers, recreation programmers, and teachers and then train them on how to apply it to their classes. We also support existing programs by providing things like staff training or creating customized programs. For instance, we work with organizations like Yukon College to redevelop courses they are offering to bring in more of a land-based approach for folks that are in, for example, early childhood education.

What sort of land-based curriculum are you offering and how are you getting it into schools?

We developed a resource all about Yukon salmon that’s connected to the new BC curriculum. We’ve been working on the Salmon in the Schools Curriculum for three years – piloting it, visiting schools to see what works/ what doesn’t, getting input from educators, reviewing it with Elders and indigenous consultants, and we’ve finally just launched it. We recently trained a bunch of educators from across the Yukon with the resource and will provide the support they need to run it in their classrooms and communities.

We’re also designing a curriculum to revitalise the Caribou in the Schools program, which highlights the importance of  the Southern Lakes Caribou. The aim is to support  teachers to engage their students in understanding and respecting Southern Lakes Caribou through experiential education on the land.

Recently, we have been contracted to develop educational curriculum and resources for BC Parks. With the help of our larger team, we are redesigning a province-wide program for children and writing educational booklets that are in all curriculum connected for distribution across BC.

Encouraging and supporting educators to localize the content by bringing in local Elders and Knowledge Holders is one of the main reasons why we’ve started exploring curriculum design. Once there’s a resource available, educators can tailor the program to meet the specific cultural needs of each community.

How did Rivers to Ridges come about?

In 2014, I had been invited to come see what the Yukon was like by a friend who I did an outdoor experiential teaching program with at Queen’s University. I got a contract working with her partner, who is a teacher at the Wood Street School – an outdoor experiential high school program for Yukon kids. My first trip with the school was a hike. I had never hiked before, I had brand new hiking boots – which was awful –  and all the wrong gear. On the trip, there was a chaperone who looked like they really knew what they were doing, which was super intimidating for me. It turned out to be Emily, and she took care of me for the whole trip. She made it so I could sleep warmly, and helped coach me through blisters and pain and leaving my family – which was emotional for me at the time.

A few months later, Emily got stuck on another Wood Street trip and needed support, so I went to rescue her. We ended up getting snowed in in Watson Lake which gave us an opportunity to talk about our backgrounds and what we wanted to do with our lives.

We discovered that we both wanted to create more outdoor learning options for young children in Yukon communities that weren’t focussed on hardcore physical pursuits, but more on empathy, awareness and community. We wanted to develop outdoor programming that encouraged and supported soft skills like self awareness, connection to the land, supporting identity, leadership and curiosity. It is also important to us that we honour the Indigenous heritage of the land – being that we’re both settlers here – by forming meaningful partnerships and relationships with First Nations. So, when we realized these values were in common, we knew we were going to work together. In 2015, the City of Whitehorse hired us as contractors to test out a Saturday program. We ran that program from September to June with a group of kids – which was a huge undertaking given that we were both also employed full time – but we wanted to see if it would work.  Those Saturday programs grew into family programs, camp programs (which we’re in our 5th year of now) and being invited to different communities to share our resources with people who are working with young people and want to do more outside.

It sounds like there is a lot of passion driving what you and Emily do. Can you talk a bit about the passion behind your work?

At the heart of it, it’s being present with kids, and connecting with them on the land. It’s extremely motivating to be with young people when they’re having these big moments or pushing through with a skill that’s been difficult for them to develop. It is also very affirming when they come back as youth leaders to share what they’ve learned with the younger kids. To see that the work is meaningful for the young people that we serve and to know we have been able to form meaningful relationships with several First Nations feels good. Elders want to come back and work with our programs and that means, to me, that what we are offering is valuable and serving needs that are important to the community, so that is really motivating too.

Those are some external things that inform our passions that we are seeing over time. When we were just starting out, it was really driven by a deep-seated feeling that children deserve to spend time meaningfully on the land. That doesn’t always happen in an age where technology has grown so much, and feeling like we can contribute something to support a balanced life for kids has always felt important.

So, how has NorthLight helped along the way?

When Emily and I were first testing out Rivers to Ridges programs and trying to figure out how to make it our full-time job, we became members of Cospace so we could devote 2 to 3 days a week working on it. From there we met tons of people who were excited about our project and who connected us to small contracts, mentors and new ideas. A fellow Cospace member, Patti Balsillie, told us about the Arctic Inspiration Prize, which we then applied to and were successful in receiving $100,000 towards the Nest Forest School. And that prize launched not just the preschool, but a whole bunch of connections that continue to this day. It also provided us with seed money to float us through some contracts that may not have otherwise been easy for us to take on as a small, two person part-time team.  We met Dennis Zimmerman through Cospace and have been working with him on the Salmon Curriculum for years.  Yeah, from there everything has grown.

Through connections made at Cospace, we met the people who would guide us through all the market research we needed to do, mentors in the community, and the people who would eventually help us incorporate. We were fortunate to be a part of one of the first (co)lab cohorts in 2017 (previous version of Launchspace), where we got the mentorship support and resources to take our ideas to the next level.

Now we have office space in the new NorthLight building, which has been huge to have a place to leave our things, be united on what we’re doing, and to welcome a new staff member Rosalind! So much has happened since starting as a little part time experiment at the old Cospace.

I bet you know about a ton of interesting books; can you recommend any?

Balanced and Barefooted” by Angela J. Hanscom is about supporting unstructured free play for young people and why that is different than adult initiated play and how important it is for kids to spend time on uneven surfaces, not dangerous but not completely safe environments.

Emily suggests “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, which she describes as interwoven stories that also merge into connection with trees in a poetic way. It sounds really beautiful.

Two of our favourite books to read with the children, are “The Other Way to Listen” and “Everyone Needs a Rock” by Bird Baylor. They are incredibly powerful books – really beautiful and deep, or just lovely depending on what level you’re reading them at.

Embers” by Richard Wagamese is a book that Rosalind carries around with her. It is little meditations that this man captured in his writing over a lifetime of morning meditation and they are very beautiful.

Summer camp registration for ages 5 to 13

We have an incredibly talented  team of returning staff who are super keen to share their joy with children through camp.

All Summer  programs currently run out of the Grey Mountain Primary School forest and back to the Hidden Lakes. The details are online and registration opens on Friday, February 28th at 9:00 AM.

The camps are grouped into age ranges and the groups also intermingle with each other. Often, the older kids will join the younger groups to take on leadership roles. For the older children there’s more skill-based learning and the younger children are focused on exploratory play and sensory awareness. We are outside everyday all day. And with the support of Yukon Energy, we continue to bring in Elders and Knowledge Holders that support sharing their cultural knowledge.

In order to break down financial barriers for people who want to attend the camp but have limited access, we have the Strong Roots Bursary Fund which is funded partially by our revenues and partially by community donations. We invite families to apply for our 2020 Bursary. Last year we were proud to welcome 6 participants who were supported by our bursary! We are looking forward to our biggest and most exciting camp season out in the forest yet!